Solondz's Sideshow 

New Line Productions

It's time for another episode of "Great Movies You Didn't Get to See at the Theater That Are Now on Video." And even now that Todd Solondz's Storytelling has been released on video, Hollywood Video is the only place in town carrying it.

It's no surprise really that Storytelling didn't make it to Blockbuster, or the Peak Theater for that matter. Solondz is notorious for his cinematic Tourette's Syndrome, a creative reflex that drives him to both mockingly skewer and deeply sympathize with characters that harbor America's darkest sufferings and taboos. From the senseless adolescent cruelty and anomie in Welcome to the Dollhouse to the suburban pathos and pedophilia in Happiness, Solondz doesn't feel comfortable feeling comfortable.

In Storytelling, Solondz's impulse to discomfit the viewer is more charmingly gratuitous than ever. And just as inexplicably compassionate.

First act: "Fiction." Vi (Selma Blair) reaches climax atop Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick from Kids), her college boyfriend with cerebral palsy. Marcus immediately wants to read his newly revised short story to Vi before he presents it to their writing workshop. When Vi demurs, Marcus calls her on her reticence:

"You hardly even sweat anymore when we have sex ... The kink is gone ... You've become ... kind," he says in crumpled disgust.

When he reads his story about a young man with cerebral palsy falling in love with a girl that makes him feel more like a "cerebral person," the workshop gets the full send-up from Solondz:

"It kind of reminded me of Faulkner, except East Coast and disabled," says one student.

"Updike has psoriasis," another adds.

When the discussion comes back around to the teacher, Mr. Gary Scott (Robert Wisdom), a formidable, Pulitzer Prizewinning black man with a penchant for unnerving pregnant pauses, he tells it like it is:

"The story's a piece of shit. You express nothing but banalities. And formally speaking, you're unable to construct a single compelling sentence."

Marcus dumps Vi for her kindness. In turn, Vi takes herself out on the town where she runs into Scott at a bar. After telling her she has no potential as a writer, he takes her home for the scene that has received the greatest amount of critical gossip: the Red Box scene.

Basically, in order to get an R rating instead of an NC-17 (guaranteed box office disaster), Solondz decided to cover the racially charged (to put it lightly and euphemistically) sex scene that ensues with a big red box.

So what we see is a dimly lit room with a big red box in over it. What we hear, on the other hand, is Scott ordering Vi to say what everyone knows she's thinking while he's doing to her what we all know she wanted. At least, that's what Solondz implies. I'll let you see it for yourself. (p.s. The unrated version sans box is available on video and DVD online.)

And that's just the first act.

In the second act Solondz takes up "non-fiction" with Toby (Paul Giamatti), a painfully pathetic documentarian who decides to make a film about disaffected suburban youth.

When Toby discovers his clich, a young gay slacker named Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) and his well-to-do Jewish family (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Noah Fleiss, Johnathan Osser and Lupe Ontiveros), we get more of the post-dysfunctional satirical freak show that's all too close to the bone to be totally detached.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy feeling weird.

-- Noel Black


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